Rights group Adhoc on Monday terminated its longtime Ratanakkiri coordinator Chhay Thy, who jumped ship to the ruling party and intends to run for commune chief in upcoming elections.
Mr. Thy’s surprise decision has disappointed his former boss—who remembered Mr. Thy as a hard-working defender of human rights and a straight-talker who stood up to authorities— and marked another setback for Adhoc, one of the country’s most visible civil society organizations, which has seen four high-ranking officers imprisoned over the past year in cases observers say are politically motivated.
“We are not able to allow him to continue working with Adhoc anymore, because he publicly announced that he became a member of the Cambodian People’s Party,” said Sam Chankea, Adhoc’s spokesman.
In a statement explaining Mr. Thy’s termination, the rights group said it wished Mr. Thy the best of luck with his political career.
“While ADHOC regrets losing one of its prominent advocates for human rights, land and natural resources rights as well as women’s rights in Ratanakkiri, it recognises and respects the decision of each of its staff members to pursue a political career,” it said.
Mr. Thy plans to run for commune chief in Ratanakkiri’s lone CNRP-voting commune, Pate in O’yadaw district, along Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.
“His wife’s father is a lord there,” said Pen Bonnar, Adhoc’s previous provincial coordinator, using a title indicating serious respect that is bestowed among the Jarai community in the area.
Married to a Jarai woman, Mr. Thy has a long history in Cambodia’s northernmost province, according to those who have known him through the years. He was living in Ratanakkiri when Adhoc first came to the province in 1999, said Mr. Bonnar. Back then, he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
“He was a forest boss,” said Mr. Bonnar, using a colloquialism for a Forestry Administration employee. “He wanted to guard the trees, natural resources…. He cared about human rights.”
Mr. Bonnar eventually took Mr. Thy on as a personal assistant, he said.
“He was brave,” Mr. Bonnar said. “He spoke the truth, he spoke directly, and I like people who talk straight.”
Together, the two struggled against the crime and greed that shaped Ratanakkiri in the following decade, as roads were cut deep into the forest and Cambodia’s indigenous communities slid from peace into poverty, he said.
It was a struggle that largely failed, Mr. Bonnar said, as the forest was cut and the rich took the land. “The work of encroaching, taking the land, was done by the people with power in the province,” he said.
There’s almost nothing left for the communities they fought for, he said. “I went to Ketchang, in Borkeo, some time ago. I saw forest, good forest there once. There aren’t even 10 hectares there now.”
Meanwhile, the powerful fought back. In 2012, Mr. Thy, Mr. Bonnar, Sok Ratha, Radio Free Asia’s provincial correspondent, and Ou Virak, then-president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, were summoned to court for incitement and terrorism over a land dispute in Lumphat district.
Adhoc and the U.N. negotiated on their behalf, said Mr. Bonnar. Of the two, only Mr. Thy was allowed to return to work in the province.
Mr. Bonnar said Mr. Thy’s defection to the ruling party took him by surprise, and hesitated to say more. “We were walking different roads,” he finally said.
The decision has also surprised others in the NGO community.
“It’s not very common that a very active civil society leader in the provinces suddenly decides to run for commune office,” said Preap Kol, the executive director of Transparency International. “So I don’t want to make any prejudgment.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Thy’s move has caught Adhoc at a difficult and uncertain time, with four top officers imprisoned and its president seemingly having fled the country, Mr. Kol said.
“What happened to the Adhoc staff—the fact that four are being detained and one former staff that is an NEC member is being detained—has some effect to the whole staff across the country,” he said.
“To some extent, they are afraid and would probably consider their whole strategy or approach of how they will continue conducting their projects across the country. So it does have an effect.”
But it was too soon not to give Mr. Thy a chance, he said.
“In the case of Mr. Thy, I think he wanted to get experience in politics, and wanted to change his work with civil society, so we respect his decision,” Mr. Kol said. “It’s too early to see how that decision may have an impact on the local issues that he has been advocating for.”
On Sunday, Mr. Thy explained his decision to leave Adhoc by saying that the CPP-led government had made strides in protecting people’s rights. “This party has started to be concerned about the people’s living standards,” he said.
That was a notion dismissed by others in civil society.
Chak Sopheap, of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the state of human rights in Cambodia had experienced a marked deterioration over the past 18 months. “In light of the current crackdown on civil society…it is difficult to detect any meaningful effort toward reform on the part of the government.”
Human rights defenders were subject to harassment, arrest and detention on spurious charges, Ms. Sopheap said.
It was crucial that authorities showed respect for the rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals throughout Cambodia, she said.
Him Yun, coordinator for the Coalition for Integrity and Social Accountability, said the country needs Adhoc to keep up its work.
“I think if the organization is really strong, someone from a younger generation will replace him. But we need a strong institution,” Mr. Yun said.
At Adhoc’s Ratanakkiri office, Phy Vanny, rumored to be a possible replacement for Mr. Thy, noted that the work of Adhoc had changed in recent years.
“Before, we had problems with land issues,” he said. “At present, there aren’t as many.”
Many communities just have no land, he added.
The way of life of the province’s indigenous people has changed since Mr. Bonnar’s time, he said. “They used to rely on the resources of the forest, and their land,” he said.
Now they get jobs and participate in the provincial economy, but their jobs “are not so technical,” he said. “They do what they can: work like planting cashews or potatoes.”
It isn’t much to live on, he said. “Our work now is to do with human rights.”
Contacted on Monday, indigenous communities said Mr. Thy had not left much of an impression.
“We didn’t work together,” said Mong Vichet, director of the Highlander’s Association. “He liked to work alone, and I don’t really understand his issues.”
Ly Sam Ouen, a community leader in Krolah village, said he had “heard him on the radio, but I have never seen his face.”
Still, local government leaders expressed respect for Mr. Thy.
“He’s a reasonable person,” said Chey Mealea, vice president of the Ratanakkiri provincial court. “We have explained to him, from time to time, about the workings of the law. He understood our explanations.”
It wasn’t always an easy relationship, she added. “Civil society is always critical. They’re not so happy. But the important thing is that we spoke to him and he would receive this.”